Column: A lament for South Jersey basketball

A high school basketball player who earns a scholarship to High Point or American or Lehigh or Lafayette or Rider or Marist or James Madison or Stony Brook is a special athlete.

Let's make that clear.

Let's not understate that.

St. Augustine Prep senior forward Justyn Mutts, the Inquirer's South Jersey Player of the Year for the 2016-17 boys' basketball season and a High Point recruit, is a highly accomplished player.

Same goes for 2015-16 Player of the Year Sa'eed Nelson, another St. Augustine Prep product and American University freshman.

And for previous Players of the Year-level athletes such as Cherry Hill East's Jake Silpe (Penn), Schalick's Rashaan Holloway (Massachusetts), Schalick's Mike Holloway (Fairleigh-Dickinson), Eastern's Matt Klinewski (Lafayette), Pitman's Darnell Foreman (Penn) and Pitman's Eric Stafford (Lafayette).

As well as Paulsboro's Xavier Lundy (Rider), Bishop Eustace Prep's Carson Purifoy (Stony Brook), Paul VI's Ron Curry (James Madison), St. Augustine Prep's Isaiah Morton (Marist), Paul VI's Rob Poole (Siena) and Camden Catholic's Anthony D'Orazio (Lehigh).

Those guys were great high school players.

They made college decisions based on what was best for them academically, socially and athletically.

Hat's off to all of them.

But when you step back and look back at South Jersey basketball in the last 10 years, you see the pattern:  The top players go to mid-major college programs.

Nobody goes to a Big East school. Or an Atlantic Coast Conference school. Or a Big Ten school.

Why, even the Big Five has experienced a serious shortage of South Jersey players in the last decade, although Silpe and Foreman are currently at Penn and 2008 Cinnaminson graduate T.J. DiLeo was a valuable role player in a distinguished career at Temple.

If you count back 15 years or so from 2006, you can list these players who went from South Jersey high schools to major college programs: Brian Zubek (Haddonfield to Duke in 2006), Dennis Horner (Holy Spirit to North Carolina State in 2006), Russell Carter (Paulsboro to Notre Dame in 2003), Dajuan Wagner (Camden to Memphis in 2001), Ernest Turner (Sterling to UNLV in 2001) and Arthur Barclay (Camden to Memphis in 2000).

Check out the 1990s: Jon Crispin (Pitman to Penn State and UCLA in 1999), Danny Miller (Rancocas Valley to Maryland in 1998), Joe Crispin (Pitman to Penn State in 1997), Malik Allen (Shawnee to Villanova in 1996), Nate Johnson (Camden to Louisville in 1995), LaMarr Greer (Middle Township to Florida State in 1994), Danny Earl (Shawnee to Penn State in 1992) and Kirk Luchman (Shawnee to Florida State in 1992).

Why does South Jersey football and baseball crank out large batches of major-college recruits every year -- and, in the case of baseball, high major-league draft picks --  while South Jersey basketball never seems to send a player to a big-time program anymore?

What's happened?

This year's NCAA tournament supplied the clue.

Notre Dame senior Steve Vasturia is a South Jersey guy. He's just not a South Jersey high school basketball guy.

A Medford resident, Vasturia was a two-time Philadelphia Catholic League Player of the Year at St. Joseph Prep. He finished a remarkable career at Notre Dame in the Irish's second-round loss to West Virginia with nearly 1,400 points and 200 three-pointers.

Seton Hall sophomore guard Myles Powell scored 10 with two assists and two steals in the Pirates' 77-71 loss to Arkansas in the NCAA tournament's first round.

Powell played at Medford Tech -- teamming with Eli Cain, another Big East-bound player who this season led DePaul in scoring with a 15.6 average -- to propel the Jaguars to the South Jersey Group 2 title in 2013.

But Powell left Medford Tech for Trenton Catholic.  Cain left the school for St. Benedict's in Newark.

Tim Delaney made a similar decision. After leading Pitman to the Group 1 state title as a junior in 2014, Delaney spent his senior year at Blair Academy before enrolling at Villanova and being a member of the Wildcats' remarkable program over the last two seasons.

Would we even be having this conversation if Vasturia, like his older and younger brother, went to either Bishop Eustace Prep or St. Augustine Prep?

Or if Delaney stayed at Pitman and Powell and Cain stayed at Medford Tech?

Or if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Charlotte Hornets forward who was the No. 2 pick in the 2012 NBA draft after one season at Kentucky, stayed home and played for Sterling or a South Jersey non-public program or changed residences to star for Camden like his father, Mike Gilchrist, did in the 1980s?

That's not a criticism of Kidd-Gilchrist's decision to play at St. Patrick's. That worked out great for him.

Same goes for Delaney's move to Blair, and Powell's to Trenton Catholic, and Cain's to St. Benedict's. They did what was best for them and nobody has the right to second-guess that.

This isn't a second guess.

This is an old-timer's lament that South Jersey high school basketball can't claim Vasturia and Powell after their fine work this past weekend.

Or Kidd-Gilchrist every time he makes another fantastic defensive play.

Or those likely future big-time college athletes who have opted to compete in the Philadelphia Catholic League or at Westtown (Pa.) or St. Benedict's.

-- Contact Phil Anastasia at panastasia@phillynews.com

-- Follow @PhilAnastasia on Twitter


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